Legislative reform

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(Host) In anticipation of the coming legislative session, commentator John McClaughry reflects on one of the most notable characteristics of the last one.

(McClaughry) The 2002 Vermont Legislature’s June 13 adjournment date tied the record for lengthiest session in modern history. This year marks the third time in eight years that the legislature has dragged on into June. Public grumbling about this spectacle may have the useful result of generating interest in some thoroughgoing legislative reforms. Here are some items for the reform agenda.

First, session limits. A bipartisan Senate proposal in 1991 would have required adjournment of the Vermont legislature by April 30. It’s time to bring that one out again.

Second, fixed salaries. Every time a session runs over the budgeted adjournment day there is real pressure to continue legislative pay and expenses indefinitely, often from legislators who frankly have little else to do and need the income. The answer is obvious: pay legislators,say, $10,000 a year regardless of how long they are in session but with a twist. The twist is, they get the first $5,000 on Day 1, and the second $5,000 on the day of adjournment.

By around town meeting day the first $5,000 will be gone. Bills will start piling up. Legislators will start lusting after the second $5,000. But to get it they have to wrap it up and go home. Day by day the pressure will build for adjournment. The likely result will be a Legislature that once again adjourns in April, even without a session limit.

Third, single member districts. Unfortunately, this vital reform got short shrift in the 2002 redistricting process, because a majority of legislators are very happy with multi-member districts where their political accountability is minimized. Now it will have to wait until 2011.

Fourth, citizen initiative. Vermont’s constitution doesn’t allow for enactment of laws by initiative and referendum. It does allow an advisory citizen initiative. This kind of initiative would give the people the power to at least force their legislators to put to a vote various controversial issues, including legislative reforms that aren’t popular with legislators. Here again, legislators don’t want their constituents expressing their view on an issue and putting pressure on the legislators to go along.

Finally, reconsider the unicameral legislature. Vermonters repealed our unicam in 1836 partly because, in the amusing view of the Council of Censors that proposed the change, having two chambers would eliminate the baneful effects of heat and party spirit.

Under the present bicameral system, disagreements between House and Senate require a conference committee. In recent years conference committee members have taken to cutting deals and spending money that neither House nor Senate ever voted for, and then offering their handiwork on a take it or leave it basis in the last days of the session. A unicam would put an end to this poor practice, and to protracted showdowns between two chambers generally.

A fanciful agenda? Probably. But consider how much better things would be if it were enacted.

This is John McClaughry – thanks for listening.

John McClaughery is president of the Ethan Allen Institute, a Vermont policy research and education organization.

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